Review: Wool, By Hugh Howey

A future underground sensation

Dystopian fiction is big business, but very little of it is true to the definition of the word as the polar opposite of Utopia, Sir Thomas More's near-perfect society. Much contemporary dystopian fiction seems to have more to do with apocalyptic zombie movies than George Orwell's 1984 or Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451.

Hugh Howey's Wool, though, is a proper futuristic dystopia in which the dead don't eat the living but rather harbour the secrets of what has gone before; secrets to be picked at and peeled away piece by piece to unveil the true horror of the world. It calls to mind the science-fiction movies they used to make so well in the 1970s – Logan's Run or George Lucas's THX 1138.

In most dystopian fiction, the characters don't know at first that they're living in a dystopia, and so it is with Wool. Thousands of people inhabit a gigantic silo below ground. A bank of sensors transmits images of a ruined, poisoned landscape into the sealed subterranean world, but the silo is the world in total, created by God so humanity can live in an inhospitable universe that reaches only as far as the sensors can see.

On the face of it, it doesn't seem too bad a society. Overseen by an elected mayor and a sheriff who keeps order; everyone employed on one of the 150 levels, from those mining on the bottom-most storeys to those working in the cafeteria near the surface. Crime is rare, and those who commit it are given the ultimate sentence: they are sent out into the toxic atmosphere to ritually clean the sensors before collapsing, dead.

When Juliette, an engineer from the lower storeys, is chosen to be the new sheriff, and then finds herself on the wrong side of the law, the carefully maintained façade of the silo begins to crumble in a tense, character-led narrative that holds your attention to the very end.

Howey is something of a publishing phenomenon. Wool was originally self-published as a series of interlinked novellas, shifting an aston- ishing 250,000 copies. The different sections sit well as a novel, and there is only a minor amount of jarring where they are stitched together. And, with the film rights already sold to Ridley Scott, Howey's Wool is likely to be spoken about in the same breath as The Hunger Games and The Passage before long.